A Frosty day in Durban

Vince Frost presented a workshop to students in Durban. Taweni Gondwe interviewed him.

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The International Design Indaba" has a special interest in the development of young designers in South Africa. Leveraging off the goodwill and resources generated by the annual event, we are running a capacity building project in parallel by mobilising professionals in the industry for resources in terms of materials, time and intellectual capital.

The inaugural event in the Design Indaba® Workshop Series in Durban exposed participants to best global practices of working in the associated disciplines of design, art direction and printing.

Participants were tutored by internationally acclaimed, award winning designer Vince Frost of Frost Design, UK. Ideas and concepts created in response to a brief set by Frost were reviewed and the final recommendations printed immediately so that the students walked away with a final product under their arm.

Design education is becoming a contentious issue in SA. Some feel that with the current education models, creativity is becoming less spontaneous and more calculated. A lot of youngsters in SA who are coming into the design 'system' come from different aesthetic traditions or ways of expressing written symbols, using colour or arranging visual information. But after a year, that is lost somewhere along the line in the quest to achieve 'global' appeal. What is your opinion on this, especially having gone through the process of work-shopping and evaluating the work of students on A Frosty Day in Durban?

I think it's the same in many countries. There is definitely such a thing as intuitive design, and the education you go through can mess with that sometimes. Personally, in my education I went through that whole phase of learning. Having worked for a while, I'm now going through a phase of unlearning. I'm learning as I go along to find out what I feel, work with what I know and rely on my instincts and what I feel comfortable with. Whether it's the way I treat colours or type or composition - it's all got to be personal. When I look back to what I did when I was new to design, I now see that there was an underlying thing going on that was consistent. As a designer you've got to be comfortable with the fact that you're making your own particular marks no matter how complicated or simple the project is that you're working on. You're doing it in the way that you feel most comfortable with. Even if you're copying someone else's style, the way that you're copying it can still have your own particular touch on it.

Obviously, I can't take my upbringing in Canada, my education and my life experience in the UK out of the process as that's where I've been and what I know. But I feel that the (intuitive) standard could be applied anywhere in the world. I judged the student's work on that basis. The execution seemed quite 'young' obviously because the people attending were very new to the field and lacking experience in the magazine or communications world. But the work still seemed to have an overall feel that was 'different' to work from other countries. If they do it in a year's time or in five years' time, they will probably have a totally different approach. Their life experiences will be different and the work will change. But then the same would happen if we did this exercise with American students or Indian students.

What's going right with design education in the UK? You seem to turn out massive numbers of design graduates who not only have a high level of technical proficiency with the tools of the trade but a good measure of conceptual assertiveness as well.

I think the fact that the UK has a huge design industry across the disciplines presumably promises opportunities for people once they have graduated. But over there they also go through college and don't end up working because they can't find jobs. There's actually quite a high percentage that don't actually get through into the industry.

In terms of the quality of work, I think a really good thing is the fact that design education in Britain now embraces the real world of design. Students get practitioners of design lecturing them on quite a regular basis. Colleges also help more with work placements to help students gain experience in 'real' work situations. So there's less hypothetical learning with students being guided by one single tutor and having to design to that tutor's own personal taste and experience. That kind of teaching is just about setting up protégés as opposed to encouraging each person to find their own individual talent. I find that quite often students are rushed too fast into making their work look slick and commercial. There's almost not enough freedom or time to experiment and find yourself.

So mastering the mechanics is given precedence over the conceptual side of the creation process?

A lot of is has to do with the desire to impress people with how well you can handle a computer program or execute your ideas so that you can step into a company.

You said on one occasion that life itself is a big design, suggesting that design has greater potential than merely helping to flog products. What is that 'something more?'

I've just personally grown to hate the term 'graphic designer' because I think it's too specific and limiting. I think there could be a much bigger opportunity to be involved in creating real value or real benefit as opposed to superficial stuff. You say the term 'graphic design' and people think of layouts and colours and typefaces. Sure it is that, but it really should and can be about problem solving. Your work can have an effect on how a particular proposition is received by people. You can be involved in the success of a company or a product. You can have an impact on the world. Personally, I'm still looking for the vehicle that will enable me to do that.

Are you disillusioned?

Certainly at times I ask myself what's this all about. It does seem pretty superficial and you feel like you're just making other people rich.

People talk about being obsessed by their work - I certainly was totally obsessed by what I was doing, some people would say I still am. But I really believe that you need to live for the moment and don't worry too much about the future. You need to take it seriously but at the same time stay in touch with reality. One of the students during the Q&A session asked me: "Are all your friends designers?" My answer is, if you're going to be a designer you might as well do it 100%. Enjoy the people you work with whether they're designers, photographers or whoever. I think that can add to your work - you have something in common. Nothing wrong with that. I suppose anybody who's good at anything is obsessed about what they're doing otherwise they wouldn't have the motivation and the drive to keep it going.

How long do you want to keep going?

I don't know! I've been at a crossroads for the past few years and the lights have been yellow for a long time and I've been kind of in-between. But these last few months I've felt that they've gone green and I'm going to get a ticket for sitting too long and causing a major traffic jam! I'm still very positive about what I do but I feel like I would now like to be my own client more; creating a magazine, a series of posters or working harder on the t-shirts that we produce. Basically, doing something with the experience that the studio has gained working for other people and creating a situation where we can make more money so we can slow down a bit. Maybe work in education more.

Because you feel you have something to share?

I have no major personal agenda. If someone needs a teacher then there's a problem isn't there? I can solve that problem for them - that's enough in itself isn't it?

Good comeback! What's the meaning of life?

Is that a serious question? Can I swear? I don't flippin' know! Do we need to know?

What's your personal motivation?

When you're obsessed with something there's usually something you don't want to confront. When I was ten years old I was the same height as my four year old son is today because I was born with 13 spleens. I had to spend a year in hospital because they didn't know what was wrong with me. So my whole life I've been behind. Since I was born I've lived in 36 different houses. Every year of my life I was in a different school, always the odd one out being so small and everything. So I was trying to find something that I could just put 100% into. And graphic design came my way. I didn't seek it out. To find something that I was so comfortable with was amazing and I've worked at it literally my whole life. There are times when I think I'm just going to drop dead from exhaustion. Sometimes I wish I'd been born in a place where I could be a builder or a lumberjack - there's something to be said for that stability. I mean, it is amazing the experience of seeing other countries and meeting interesting people and seeing how other cultures and environments work, but it's also unsettling to deal with all that information.

Words of wisdom for our designers-in-training?

For a long time I was incredibly excited about winning competitions and getting articles written about my work but now I see that sort of over-glamorised a pretty mundane profession. In the end, it's just a job. Life has got to be about aiming for happiness. Don't f*** anyone over (at least, try not to), do what you feel comfortable with and if you can make a living out of it and provide for your family then that's great. Learning is what helps you do interesting things. You stop learning, you stop living.

I've been lucky with the jobs I've had a chance to work on and the people I've gotten to work with. When I first started and got to meet people whose work I admired or who I looked up to, it was really reassuring because I got to see that they were real people although I'd put them up to be these mysterious entities. You don't know who they are, what they've done, what they're like. You think that their lives are perfect and you aspire to that. Then you realise that they've got loads of problems themselves and they're questioning life too. And that the things they made were linked to the lives they were living.

Your work often displays this understanding / value of the personal. Is this why at the last Design Indaba® you said that you believe people don't judge your work by the fact that you work in a specific visual tradition, but by your approach to problem solving using the tool of graphic design?

If you look at Nora, my parents' dog on the cover of the Independent, for example, only I could have put that particular dog on the cover. But for the consumer who's buying that magazine, that reference doesn't exist so it doesn't matter. As a designer you just have to look for and work with what immediately surrounds you. It's all about context. If people insist on looking for a country's particular style, I guess that's where they would find it communicated the best. There's no reason why a piece of work produced in SA should look English or American… but then it doesn't necessarily have to look South African either! It should just be what it is. There's the danger of always looking to other countries for 'how to do it' when it's 'what you do it with' that makes the real difference. I'd have to live here a very long time to do a magazine for example. I could set up the structure but I certainly wouldn't be in a position to talk about South African culture or African culture. It would be totally naïve. How you respond to a problem should always be context specific otherwise your work is irrelevant.


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